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International Socialism, Spring 1979


Abbie Bakan

The Women’s Movement and the Left in Canada


From International Socialism, 2:4, Spring 1979.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up for by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Canada was no exception to the international expansion of capitalism over the last 30 years which altered the participation of women in the economy. It was during this boom, following on the coattails of the experience of World War II when married women temporarily joined the industrial proletariat, that married women became an integral part of the workforce. In 1941, in Canada, statistics show only 4.5 per cent of married women working for a wage. Thirty years later the figure is 33 per cent, and, by 1977, 45 per cent.

There were other changes. Women were swept into the expanding educational institutions. And, the domestic service that women workers had done in private homes became socialized as public service done in schools, hospitals, and offices.

In general, women did not compete with men for the same jobs. Men were hired for “men’s jobs” and women were hired for “women’s jobs”. In those jobs, women earned either low pay (one half the wages of men), or no pay (seven per cent were volunteers).

The 60s Women’s Movement

The increasing participation of women in the paid labour force and on the campuses meant that women were able to become at least partially involved in socialized work after marriage.

In the United States (as noted in Barbara Winslow’s article in SWP International Discussion Bulletin 7/8), women students became radicalized through the Black civil rights movement and through the anti-Vietnam war movement. As this American women’s movement grew, there was a spill-over effect into Canada.

The Canadian women’s movement, however, never reached the proportions of that in the US, or even of many European countries. Sympathy for the American left was combined with tremendous suspicion of American “continentalist” ideas. The left in Canada, whether English or French Canadian, was nationalist. English Canadian women were afraid that militant feminism would “divide” the nationalists. Quebecoise women were suspicious that issues such as abortion could be used as a method of subtle or direct genocide against French Canadians.

The movement was hindered further by its concentration in a few urban centres – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. And, finally, almost as soon as it started, the movement, led by middle class women and students, focused on one issue – abortion law reform. Demands of working class women, native women and immigrant women were hardly considered while issues which seemed either unwinnable or in “bad taste”, such as lesbian rights, free abortion on demand, or universal daycare were given token support at best. The movement was distinctly reformist.

By the early 70s, there was more momentum but also more fragmentation. The most militant forces saw the abortion reform as a hoax and continued to organize demonstrations for more dramatic abortion law reform. Gradually, however, it was reduced to a largely paper petition campaign to “free Morgenthaler” – the Montreal doctor jailed for performing illegal abortions outside the hospital system.

As for the staunch reformers, the publication of the Royal Commission Report in 1970 siphoned them off into the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. It was organized to pressure the government into implementing the report’s semi-tough sounding recommendations. Campaigns introduced to get women to the top in state offices, universities, law and medical schools, and corporations met with some success. But the increase of a few women in high status jobs did not alter the general trend towards increasing segregation of women into low-paying, low-security jobs.

Finally, a third wing of the women’s movement became mainly involved in running women’s services – self-help and health clinics, birth control and abortion referral centres, rape crisis centres, women’s bookstores, etc. Politically, there was no cohesive ideology to this wing of the movement. Some were radical separatists, some liberal social workers, and so on. In all cases, however, the effect was the same: creation of a rescue service for the few casualties of capitalism and women’s oppression that could be reached. Despite some attempts to defend these services, in the growing economic crisis most of them have gone bankrupt or have been forced to cut back services. Others have become little more than women’s petty capitalist outfits whose future is dim.

In the meantime, quite apart from the organized women’s movement, working women were taking some of the most important steps in the fight for women’s liberation. They were joining unions at an unprecedented rate. Between 1963 and 1973, female membership in Canadian unions increased by 144 per cent compared to a male increase of 49 per cent. This was particularly a result of the spread of unionization to the expanded public service sector. Those industries with the highest proportion of women workers – finance, services, insurance, real estate, and trade – remained those with the lowest level of unionization.

The Crisis and the Women’s Movement today

In contrast to the post-war boom period, the current period of crisis is one of sending, and keeping, women home. The main weapons are cutbacks, the attack on the right of women to work, and the attack on the right to abortion.

In the face of these attacks, a new layer of working class women – women who have been remotely but significantly influenced by the popularization of the ideas of women’s liberation since the 1960s – are beginning to seek a militant response. This time around, the rise in women’s consciousness is not fundamentally an ideological radicalisation based among middle class women. Rather, it is a direct response to a material attack on the conditions of working class women’s lives.

Within the women’s movement, the severity of the crisis is forcing a stronger class divide. The “old guard” bourgeois feminists of the National Action Committee variety are either satisfied that “real progress has been made”, or they are content to continue to lobby the government for more family law reform. Other groups of feminists, like Wages for Housework and the home birth movement, have moved decidedly to the right. They are developing alliances with the anti-abortion forces as the role of pregnant-mother-in-the-home becomes glorified.

On the other side of the coin, the militant and successful strikes of the women at Fleck Industries and York University as well as the west coast bank organizing efforts of the Service, Office and Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC) have pointed to the potential power of a working class women’s movement.

The SORWUC, British Columbia-based independent union dedicated to organizing women workers decided in 1977 to do the seemingly impossible – take on the banks. And they made some real gains. After months of fighting, they obtained the right to bargain locally – a reversal of the Canada Labour Relations Board’s 1959 ruling on nationwide bargaining.

In spite of the more dismal subsequent history of the SORWUC bank drive, the lessons were brought home more clearly in the Fleck and York University Staff Association (YUSA) strikes. Fleck is a tiny auto parts plant in south-western Ontario which employs about 130 people, overwhelmingly women. In February 1978, the women, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike for a first contract. After six months of picketing, when they experienced sexual harassment and police brutality, they were victorious. Key elements in the victory were the organized support of rank and file unionists, and, an important turning point in the women’s movement, the organized support of women’s groups including one all-women’s mass picket.

Such a picket was all set to go again on October 4, 1978 when Toronto’s York University administration caved in to the demands of its 1,000 striking secretaries, clerical workers and support staff who won job security and a money offer increased from four per cent to 7.1 percent.

These strikes have had a profound impact not only on the labour movement whose bureaucrats must now sharpen up their rhetoric on women’s liberation but also on the women’s movement. Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) a Toronto women’s group organized a year ago, has drawn women who have traditionally identified themselves only as feminists into women’s actions which are also class actions; for example, bussing women to the Fleck picket line. Similarly, this year’s International Women’s Day Coalition in Toronto adopted a series of issues which went far beyond the historically limited focus of the Canadian women’s movement. And, finally, Organized Working Women (OWW), traditionally a union women’s organization dedicated only to the interests of women union bureaucrats, has adopted at least a paper position favouring an “action” strategy for women’s rights as opposed to merely lobbying the CLC brass.

All in all, then, the conditions women are facing make a multi-issue, anti-capitalist response to women’s oppression much less difficult to argue for than in the 1960s. There is little room at the top for the kind of co-optation which took place before, and little likelihood of an exclusive, one-issue focus, though individual issues should and will be taken up. For the IS in Canada, the changes taking place in the economy, in the lives of working class women, and in the women’s movement are extremely important. The world around us is creating a small but very real audience for the ideas of revolutionary feminism. These are the ideas which must be expressed in our newspaper Workers’ Action, in our literature and in our public forums in the year ahead.

Note: This article is taken from a convention document passed by the Canadian International Socialists, Sept. 1978. Details of the struggles referred to can be found in Workers’ Action. To subscribe send $5.00 to Box 339, Stn. E TORONTO, Ontario, Canada; or £2 to Bookmarks, 265 Seven Sisters Road, London N.4.

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